A Love Letter to Critical Mass

How and why Jonny Tiernan fell for the joyous bike protest event

Words By Jonny Tiernan
Photos By Illustration by Emma Taggart

In our new feature, we’re asking Berliners to wax lyrical on something they just love about the city. Sure, it’s not utopia here, but there is a lot to be thankful for. In this debut edition, LOLA founder Jonny Tiernan gushes about his undying love for Critical Mass.

“If you don’t know what Critical Mass is, it’s essentially a big unofficial bike protest. It started out in San Francisco back in 1992 before spreading to cities all over the world. The idea is for enough cyclists to gather together so that the bikes take over the streets and make it safe for everyone to cycle. If you feel unsafe cycling in ‘traffic’, then Critical Mass is the way for you to feel secure, as at the end of the day, cyclists are traffic too.

On the last Friday of each month, thousands of cyclists gather at Mariannenplatz before setting off and taking over the roads. There are people with sound systems blasting music, all varieties of wheeled transport, people with their dogs, whole families – it’s like a mini festival and cross section of Berlin life. I’m not sure how Critical Mass is in other cities, but the revolutionary, counter cultural and resistance-based spirit matches perfectly with the city’s DNA.

I took part in my first Critical Mass about five years ago. On the first ride I was insanely jealous of the people who were towing sound systems behind or in front of their bikes. Being able to provide a soundtrack for the ride was immensely appealing to me, and by my second ride I had sourced a cheap Kinderwagen from eBay Kleinanzeigen and borrowed a big speaker to blast tunes through. It was immensely fun to DJ while cycling through the streets and it’s now something I do on a regular basis (although not every time – it can be fun just to ride and let other people be in charge of the tunes).

Every time I’ve been on Critical Mass it has taken me to a part of the city I’ve never cycled through before.

For the first year or so of doing Critical Mass, I had it in my head that there was a group of people who had the route in mind and who kept it secret from the police. One of the ideas behind the protest is to disrupt the movement of cars through the city, and if the police are aware of where the route is going then they could get around this. Then, on one Critical Mass I decided to go to the front and see if I could meet the people in charge. When I got to the front, I was shocked to find that there was no fixed route, and instead the route was made up on the fly. At each set of traffic lights, people shout ‘Links!’ or ‘Rechts!’ and whatever the general consensus is, that’s the way the bikes go. Sometimes people might have a landmark in mind, or an idea of a route, but generally it is just a form of democratic anarchy.

Every time I’ve been on Critical Mass it has taken me to a part of the city I’ve never cycled through before, and it’s a wonderful way to get to know Berlin. The only fixed part of the route is that at some point on each ride the snake of bikes will make its way to the Siegessäule and do laps of the column. This always feels like a real moment and something to celebrate. It’s also a time when motorists tend to get really upset.

The attitude of motorists is something that really gets laid bare on a Critical Mass. Sometimes people will actually try to drive their cars into the path of the bikes rather than wait. For this reason, cyclists will stand in front of the cars with their bikes and stop the drivers from moving forward. This is known as ‘corking’, and the cyclists will often take the time to calmly explain to the motorists that the bikes will pass in a moment, and ask them to be patient.

There really is no excuse for the levels of anger that you will frequently witness from motorists.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t take very kindly to waiting and they can get very angry. I understand that people don’t like to have their journey disrupted, but there really is no excuse for the levels of anger that you will frequently witness from motorists. There are nearly always threats and sometimes even physical violence.

On one Critical Mass I was stopping a car from moving into the middle of the road (and into the path of all of the bikes). After two minutes, a passenger got out of the back seat, came over and violently pushed me off my bike and onto the ground. Then, when he saw the police coming, he ran. I escaped with a few cuts and bruises, but it was a deeply unpleasant experience.

Not all motorists are so volatile – many actually just take out their phones to film the procession, which is cool – but the level of entitlement that drivers seem to feel when it comes to the roads is out of order. Roads do not exist only for cars, and one thing that Critical Mass opened my eyes to is how inefficient cars are as a way of getting people from one place to another.

During a protest we were traveling down Schlesiches Straße in the direction of Treptow and the opposite side of the road was at a standstill. In this traffic jam, the most common sight was a car with a single occupant. It made me reflect on just how inefficient and wasteful cars are as a mode of inner city transport – the energy and fuel it takes to propel a single person housed inside tons of metal is pretty rubbish when you think about it. A train, bus, tram or bike is just so much better. It was at this moment when I realised that Critical Mass had changed the way I think.

When I first started taking part in the Mass, I did it because riding through the city with thousands of other people is FUN! It still is fun, and this is of course a big motivating factor and a solid reason for taking part, but now I also do it because it feels important and worthwhile. My attitude to how the roads are shared and my thoughts about public and private transport have been hugely influenced by being part of Critical Mass. I’m more pro-bike and anti-car than ever before, and it even led to me joining the ADFC, the official German bicycle association.

Personally, I don’t think it really matters why you want to take part in Critical Mass. You can do it because it’s fun, you can do it to help keep cyclists safer, you can do it as a way to hang out with your friends, you can do it to stick two fingers up at motorists, you can do it for whatever reason that you want. All that really matters is that you have a bike (or unicycle, or trike, or anything you fancy), and a desire to take part. The rest will take care of itself and I hope you grow to love it as much as I do.”

Critical Mass takes place on the last Friday of every month. Cyclists gather at the Feuerwehrbrunnen at 8pm and set off from there.